Tech’s Harsh Censorship of Porn Is Hitting Very Close to Home

Tech’s Harsh Censorship of Porn Is Hitting Very Close to Home 1

My webcam account was recently suspended for violating the code of conduct. I was told I had engaged in a fetish category that is cause for immediate account closure.

I’ve been a porn and cam performer off and on since 2002. It was my main source of income for about 12 years, then I took a break to do a PhD. Now that I’m finishing my degree—and my funding has run out—I’ve found myself back online in what is probably the most inhospitable porn landscape we’ve seen in decades.

My research has kept me involved in sex work politics throughout my camming hiatus, and I was well aware of the new adult-content guidelines Mastercard was introducing on Oct. 15. I felt prepared. I had experience trying to adhere to Mastercard’s opaque rules before—after all, the power that payment processors wield over the adult industry isn’t new. But in the past, I cammed from an actual brick and mortar studio for a small website with just a few dozen models. I had direct contact with management. If there was a problem, Mastercard contacted the boss to explain the issue. He would knock on my studio door, tell me what was up, and I could immediately comply. Whether or not I agreed, the parameters were clearer and the process was reasonable.

This time around, things have changed. I’m working for a giant site with thousands of performers. I have no relationship with management. Most of my emails go unanswered or receive generic responses. When I was suspended, I got no explanation, no opportunity for correction, no word about what would happen to my outstanding pay. There is a code of conduct for us to adhere to, but the rules are vague. It’s hard to know what acts or topics of discussion might trigger a violation, and there’s no boss down the hall to have a chat with.

For platforms operating in this payment-processor-policy environment, the stakes for noncompliance are high and the worker base is considered disposable. The impact is passed down to online sex workers, who are experiencing enormous harm. Since Mastercard announced their plans in April, many have suffered account closures, payment interruptions, and upload delays. In August, OnlyFans nearly banned adult content, until they received major backlash from creators and the media. In December, AVNStars announced it would cut monetization features altogether. Compliance is so onerous that companies are simply opting out.

This policy environment is also forcing ominous restrictions on sexual freedom. Platforms are moderating their workers with an increasingly heavy hand, so the scope of sexual topics we have to avoid is getting broader. Platforms have also passed the task of moderation down to us, asking that we flag and report clients who request shows that might violate the rules, or risk being punished for complicity. Not only does this mean I stand to make less money—I’m also being asked to police my clientele and their desires.

Tech platforms exercise increasing power over what we are allowed to say and do online. This isn’t unique to porn—we’re all familiar with TikTok’s ban on certain words and phrases, and the creative workarounds generated by users. More and more, everyone must live and die by the terms of service. But sex workers have long been deplatformed from mainstream social media simply for being sex workers, even when their content is in compliance.

More and more, everyone must live and die by the terms of service. But sex workers have long been deplatformed from mainstream social media simply for being sex workers, even when their content is in compliance.

Because of the discriminatory nature of content moderation, sex workers have also had to train fans in how to play the compliance game or else risk losing essential online services. For example, sex workers’ PayPal or Venmo accounts are seized when clients write incriminating “thank you” notes. One might think that we’d be safe from such scrutiny, once pushed into the digital red light district of adult-specific sites. Instead, we’re increasingly banned from explicitly NSFW media spaces too, and also have to monitor our client interactions there. Cam chat logs and comment sections are trawled for members’ requests to meet, or for their references to unsavory fetishes. As with TikTok, users are developing code to say what they mean. But, wary of another suspension, I’m feeling pressure to report even these coded exchanges. Not only must I refuse private shows that might cross the line, but I should kick, block, and report clients that ask for “questionable” activities to prove I’m not complicit.

This has a chilling effect. I know I’m safest from account closure if I only engage in the most basic, vanilla exchanges. But I don’t want to be a fetish cop. Part of why I like this work is that I get to explore the unimaginably vast capacity humans have for sexual desire and eroticization. My job, ultimately, is to help people find pleasure. And through this job, I too have found pleasure in things I never expected. Policing users’ fetishes does not make me feel safer or make my job less exploitative. Instead, it makes my work environment more hostile, it reduces my capacity to earn a living, and it limits my performance to generic, scripted, heteronormative expressions of sexuality. So while I’m afraid for our immediate livelihoods, I’m also afraid of what this is doing to us culturally. I’m afraid of the adversarial approach I’m supposed to take with my clients. I once delighted in providing a safe space for people to explore desires that they are told to be ashamed of. Now I’m being asked to punish them and compound that shame to save my own skin.

I once delighted in providing a safe space for people to explore desires that they are told to be ashamed of. Now I’m being asked to punish them and compound that shame to save my own skin.

I know it’s not the platforms’ fault. Platforms could do better by their workers, but they’re being pressured by Mastercard. And Mastercard is being pressured by anti-porn crusaders whose goal is to shame sex, police desire, and sanitize the internet. These groups pretend to care about abuse and exploitation because it makes for good marketing, but their real goal is to impose traditional “family values.” They want to restrict gender expression, sexual expression, and relational expression to fit a rigid, racist, patriarchal, heterosexist structure. This is evidenced by the kinds of cultural production these groups and their allies label “pornographic” in an effort to censor them, such as safer sex information, works that validate LGBTQ+ experiences, or materials that promote social justice and sexual agency. And within pornographic content, the first genres to be flagged are always those that fall outside of heteronormative intercourse. The “charmed circle” of acceptable sex is alive and well, with many fetishes deemed obscene, indefensible, or innately dangerous.

The right for consenting adults to create and consume fetish content is worth fighting for. But it doesn’t make for a very marketable campaign. Sex—especially weird sex—isn’t considered an appropriate cause to rally behind. It doesn’t attract allies because people know they will be labeled sick, dangerous perverts. That’s why the rights of porn and sex workers are very often couched in something else. We’re pro-free speech, we’re pro-worker livelihoods, we’re anti-privacy violations. And we are all of those things, and those are reasons that people should care. But we should also care about the sex, about sexual variety and sexual freedom, even though it invites the thorny question of whether or not there is such a thing as an unethical fantasy.

Obscenity law assumes that, yes, some sexual ideas and images are simply too disruptive and distasteful to have a legal right to exist. An argument used over the years to suggest that pornography does not deserve free speech protections is that it is not expression but rather “nonrational” speech. These critics assert that porn has subliminal effects—that because of its sexual nature, it bypasses our moral and rational cognitive processes and can force people to develop desires that they wouldn’t have otherwise.

Sexual fantasies are considered especially dangerous because it is assumed that they are aspirational—that having a fantasy means you necessarily want to play it out. This is rooted in the idea that sex is “instinctual,” an unruly beast beyond the realm of reason. It’s an idea that is very attractive to sexually irresponsible and abusive people: if sex circumvents our moral mental forces, we can’t be held accountable for our sexual actions. To promote ideas of “sex addiction” and “porn addiction”—neither considered addictions by reputable sources—is to promote avenues to abdicate sexual responsibility. The irony is that anti-porn groups claim they want to end sexual abuse, exploitation, and violence, while actively supporting lines of thinking that do nothing to cultivate good sexual ethics and do everything to justify abusive behavior.

Terms of service and “Community Guidelines” across all areas of the internet are presented as if they ensure safety. What is increasingly clear is that “safety” for some is harm for others. “Safety” gets us kicked off of platforms that have become essential utilities. “Safety” has us walking on eggshells while we work. The fantasies I’m being asked to police are not harmful to anyone, even if they were consensually enacted in reality. They may be considered odd or distasteful, but they aren’t dangerous. So let us bring pleasure to people. We’re consenting. We’re not hurting anyone. We’re just trying to eke out a moment of respite in this dumpster fire of a world, and pay the rent while doing so.